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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 6: Self-Deportation: Not Just for Immigrants Any More!

We all remember when Mitt Romney outsmarted himself in 2012 by calling his approach to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country as “self-deportation”–a strategy of making life so miserable for the undocumented, via all kinds of petty harassment and denial of hope, that they’d find their way across the border without the messy expedients of police dogs, cattle prods or boxcars.
It worked pretty well for Mitt in the GOP nomination contest, but was a significant part of the reason he lost the Latino vote by 44 points in November and also burnished his reputation for being an unfeeling plutocrat.
If possible, Republicans may make “self-deportation” seem pretty humane by the end of the current presidential cycle. But in the mean time, the term isn’t a bad description of where they are going in their famously new attention to income inequality, as I noted this week at Washington Monthly:

If you read Brian Beutler’s review of Jeb Bush’s “big speech” at the Detroit Economic Club tomorrow, it’s obvious the former Florida’s governor’s idea of squaring conservative orthodoxy with a “right to rise” agenda for social mobility is to double or triple down on the idea that government assistance programs trap people in non-working dependence.

As metaphors for social insurance go, “spider web” sounds disgusting, but beats Paul Ryan’s idyllic “hammock” in that it at least treats beneficiaries as unwitting victims, rather than coddled malingerers. Ultimately, though, they amount to the same critique: When the government intervenes to support the poor and working classes, it captures them and saps them of ambition.

If you really believe people structure their lives around short-term money considerations, then anti-poverty programs, which by definition must phase down benefits as earned income increases, can easily look like traps, and conservative audiences who (a) don’t view the government benefits they receive as morally tainted, (b) resent having to pay taxes to support those people, and (c) bridle at any suggestion they might harbor prejudice, instinctively love this kind of “analysis,” implying as it does that abandonment is a sort of tough love. It’s kind of a general social-policy version of “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants: make live less tolerable for the poor, and they’ll get themselves out of poverty.

The crocodile tears for those damaged via humane treatment are pretty much the same.

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